The burial of a 17-year-old mother who was gunned down in her home has sparked a dispute between two large churches over the control of a cemetery and graves ensnared in a $13 million real estate deal gone bad.
Tiffany Dionna Jackson was fatally shot Aug. 9 while sleeping with her 11-month-old daughter in her Landover Hills home. Police arrested the woman's boyfriend and two of his friends and charged them with first-degree murder.
In the days after her daughter's death, Theresa Jackson gained strength from fellow members of the District's Way of the Cross Church of Christ, which in early 1996 purchased from Riverdale Baptist Church a 2,300-seat sanctuary, a school and land for a cemetery spread across 155 acres near Upper Marlboro.
Jackson's family, like other church members, had purchased a $1,000 cemetery plot there. But a few days before Jackson's funeral, her family learned from a lawyer representing their church that Tiffany would not be buried in the cemetery because of a property dispute between Way of the Cross and Riverdale Baptist, at Landover Road and Route 193.
"They denied us," said Theresa Jackson, who ended up burying her daughter in a Clinton graveyard. "It really isn't the Christian way on how they handled this."
The disagreement between predominantly white Riverdale Baptist and Way of the Cross, which is predominantly black, is really a testament to the changing demographics of Prince George's County, church growth and what can happen when multimillion-dollar deals crafted by churches go bad.
In 1994, Riverdale Baptist put its church and land on the market. The church had purchased another tract in Davidsonville and was planning to build a large sanctuary and school there in Anne Arundel County, where most of its members had moved.
Meanwhile, Way of the Cross Church of Christ, which has more than 2,000 members, was meeting in its sanctuary at Ninth and D streets NE. But many of the younger families at the church were purchasing homes in suburban Maryland, and church officials decided to purchase a building and open a school in Prince George's.
"When Way of the Cross tried to purchase our facility, we hoped that they would have been able to fulfill that obligation, but they never did," said the Rev. Brian Mentzer, Riverdale Baptist senior pastor.
Claude Roxborough, an attorney for Way of the Cross who crafted the deal, said the plan was to develop an entire church community to "meet the needs of our parishioners from birth to death, and this was the perfect place."
"The plan was to use the sanctuary, operate a school and also build 200 single-family homes and a retirement community," Roxborough said. He said the deal also included the cemetery, which is about 16 acres next to Riverdale's existing cemetery.
Riverdale agreed to sell its property to Way of the Cross for $13.9 million. The church was able to get a $10 million "Community Reinvestment" loan from Riggs National Bank, and Riverdale agreed to hold a second note for $3.9 million until the District church could finance the balance of the sale price.
Roxborough said there was at first a friendly relationship between Riverdale Baptist and Way of the Cross, which shared the sanctuary after the deal was made. He said it chilled quickly after Anne Arundel officials voted to prohibit Riverdale Baptist from building a new church in Davidsonville.
From 1996 through 1998, Way of the Cross made monthly mortgage payments of $72,000 to Riggs Bank for the Riverdale property, and Riverdale paid Way of the Cross $23,000 for three months in 1996 for use of the sanctuary and the school. But the payments by both stopped as each church encountered unforeseen difficulties.
"Everything was cooperative, but when Riverdale lost their bid to build in Davidsonville, they ceased cooperation with us," Roxborough said.
"There was a need for a zoning variance to allow a cluster of 200 homes that would have been sold at a cost that would have been more than enough to pay for the church building," he said. "We knew we didn't have the $3 [million] to $4 million we owed. We knew we had to get the property refinanced."
Riverdale Baptist then asked the Prince George's County Circuit Court to enforce the agreement that stipulated that Way of the Cross would vacate the property if it didn't pay off the $3.9 million within one year.
"They had defaulted on the [Riggs] bank loan, the bank was going to take over the property, and we were about to lose our home," said Dennis Howard, director of operations for Riverdale Baptist. "We lost a lot of money getting our property back."
Mentzer said: "We hoped this would have moved forward in a positive direction. We did all we could do to help them, but from our standpoint, Way of the Cross doesn't have a cemetery; they don't own the property."
Mentzer said that officials at his church were never approached by Jackson's family to bury her on their church grounds. "We would have been happy to look at the possibility of burying her, but we didn't hear from her family. The way it was approached was to bury this person in the Way of the Cross Cemetery."
But Randy McRae, another Way of the Cross attorney, said that Riverdale officials are not telling the whole story. "I called Dennis Howard . . . and he said that there would not be any more burials in the Way of the Cross cemetery because Riverdale re-obtained the land," McRae said. "I said, 'This is an emergency situation. Can we make some exceptions?' He said no."
Riverdale Baptist Memorial Gardens, as the church graveyard is called, and Way of the Cross Cemetery are separated by shrubs. McRae accused the Riverdale leaders of insensitivity because they suggested that if Way of the Cross members want to be buried with their loved ones, they should dig them up.
"All I suggested to him is that they could move the family members. I didn't mean any disrespect," Howard said.
But Bishop Alphonzo D. Brooks, whose father, the founder of Way of the Cross Church of Christ, is buried in the cemetery, said he will not disturb his family's graves. In August 1996, the remains of Brooks's parents had been removed from Lincoln Cemetery in Suitland to the burial grounds at Riverdale.
"We sold 2,663 graves to members. . . . I bought 10 myself," Brooks said. "We have 16 members of our church buried out there, but they told us we can't use it." Brooks said when his sister died last month, she was buried in Clinton, in the same cemetery where Tiffany Jackson was buried two weeks ago.
Mentzer of Riverdale Baptist called the dispute, "a no-win situation," but he insisted his church has done the right thing. "The bottom line is they made a commitment and were not able to fulfill it," he said.
CAPTION: In 1996, Bishop Alphonzo D. Brooks, left, moved the remains of his parents to Way of the Cross Cemetery from Suitland. His father was the founder of Way of the Cross Church of Christ.
CAPTION: Riverdale Baptist Memorial Gardens is next to the cemetery that's part of a dispute between Riverdale Baptist Church and Way of the Cross Church of Christ.